US tells Benjamin Netanyahu that focus on West Bank distracts from Iran threat

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will warn Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that a flare-up of violence in the occupied West Bank will weaken their ability to work together to counter the threat from Iran, a senior US official said.

“Focusing on West Bank Violence. . . impairs our ability to focus on what is currently the strategic threat. . . Iran’s dangerous nuclear advances and continued regional and global aggression,” a senior US defense official said ahead of the US delegation’s arrival in Tel Aviv.

The West Bank, which makes up most of the Palestinian territories and has been occupied by Israel since 1967, has seen a sharp escalation of violence in recent months, raising concerns that the security situation could spiral out of control. Israeli forces have killed more than 70 Palestinians in the West Bank this year, while Palestinians have killed 13 Israelis and one Ukrainian.

Thursday’s meeting between Austin and Netanyahu was moved to a site near Ben Gurion Airport after massive protests against the Israeli government’s plan to overhaul the country’s justice system blocked major highways around Tel Aviv, where they were originally scheduled to meet.

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Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have joined weekly demonstrations against the changes, which they say pose a fundamental threat to the country’s democratic institutions.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will land in Cairo, Egypt, on Wednesday as part of his four-nation tour of the Middle East.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin greets Egyptian officials after landing in Cairo on Wednesday as part of a four-nation Middle East tour © Idrees Ali/Reuters

Austin’s stop in Israel comes at a time of strained US-Israeli relations, with Washington deeply concerned about the escalation of violence in the West Bank. US President Joe Biden’s administration is also wary of Netanyahu’s plans to advance his judicial reforms.

The US defense chief emphasizes on Thursday that “one of the dominant ways we have been able to work together. . . It is because we are two democracies that share values,” said the senior US defense official, indicating Washington’s personal concern about the way Netanyahu’s plans have upended the country.

Israel, meanwhile, is deeply concerned about Iran’s growing nuclear activities and is calling on Washington to maintain a credible military threat to deter Tehran.

Austin will tell Israeli officials that the Biden administration is prioritizing diplomacy over Iran’s nuclear program, while stressing that the United States is committed to preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.

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But talks on the issue have essentially stalled as relations with Iran continued to deteriorate after Tehran cracked down on protesters late last year and tightened military lines with Moscow since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The United States accuses Iran of selling armed drones to Russia, which Tehran denies.

Israel has not provided lethal aid to Ukraine, and Washington will press Israeli officials for more, especially amid Western concerns that Iran is using Ukraine as a “battle laboratory” to test its weapons.

“Everybody here needs to be prepared for what the threat scenarios look like when Iran takes the tactics, techniques and procedures it learned in Ukraine and starts using those coercive tactics here. [in the Middle East]said the senior US official.

Austin has already visited Jordan, Egypt and Iraq this week as part of a four-nation tour designed to reassure allies that Washington remains committed to the Middle East despite competing priorities such as China.

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